Criterion Sunday 197: Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956)

It may only be half an hour but it puts across everything it needs to, about the scale and terror of some (very recent, contemporary) history, given it was made just 10 years after the end of the war. It deals a bit with the way that sites of abject misery so quickly return to verdant life: I remember visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and they seemed like such peaceful places, as they do at times in this film, but then there’s the archival footage, and the vastness of it is difficult to comprehend. I’m not really sure this film manages to make it comprehensible because in so many ways it’s not, but it hints at these appalling events and it’s important for people to be reminded.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais | Writer Jean Cayrol | Cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny | Length 32 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 February 2018)

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Criterion Sunday 196: Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

When people think about pretentious French movies, I think this is somehow the Platonic ideal they’re thinking about, an ur-text of reflective voiceover, alienated detachment and pain, the possibility (and impossibility perhaps) of cultural rapprochement following imperialist aggression, opening as it does with the conjoining of bodies under the ash of nuclear fallout. It is, as has been far more eloquently expressed by commentators far more engaged than I am, about the complex interplay of memory and desire, but it is also aggressively modernist in its construction and the way it engages with the viewer, so unlikely to be for all tastes. I first watched it 20 years ago, and I’ll watch it in another 20, and I can only hope to catch up with what it’s doing by then.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais | Writer Marguerite Duras | Cinematographers Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny | Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 February 2018 (and earlier, on VHS in Wellington, December 1997)

Criterion Sunday 195: I fidanzati (aka The Fiances, 1962)

Presented side-by-side in the Criterion Collection with Olmi’s previous film Il posto, this has a quite different feeling to it, even if it has all the same beauty to its monochrome cinematography. Instead of moving to the big city of Milan, this film has a hero who leaves that city for the remoteness of Sicily. It’s about two people who are already together as of the film’s start, but who seem to be unhappy and drifting apart. It’s a film that doesn’t constantly look forward to a (possibly bleak) future, but continually seems to look back to a (apparently happier) past from that bleak present. This shifts some of the emotional weight of the film a little, but love — while uncertain in both films — here instead has a haunting, spectral presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ermanno Olmi | Cinematographer Lamberto Caimi | Starring Carlo Cabrini, Anna Canzi | Length 77 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 February 2018

Criterion Sunday 194: Il posto (1961)

I certainly didn’t expect a great deal from this film when I watched it, the first Olmi film I’d seen, expecting some kind of 60s extension of the neorealism ‘brand’. However, that would be to woefully undersell this beautifully shot and exquisitely judged film about young people. And unlike many in that ‘coming of age’ genre, this isn’t (just) about falling in love, it’s about having to move from school into the workplace, about moving away from home, it’s about navigating a world of responsibility that wears you down and faces you as a possibly bleak, possibly boring, possibly unceasingly repetitive and yet ever uncertain future. Plus, the beautiful young woman who plays our hero Domenico’s inamorata turns out to have married director Ermanno Olmi, and apparently they’re still together, so maybe that’s enough to allay any concerns about what happens to the protagonist as he looks forward in life.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ermanno Olmi | Writers Ettore Lombardo and Olmi | Cinematographer Lamberto Caimi | Starring Sandro Panseri, Loredana Detto | Length 93 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 February 2018

Criterion Sunday 193: Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

A whodunit movie, I suppose, but one in which that all seems a little beside the point by the end (it’s a really short scene of ‘it was me all along!’ ‘Oh, okay then’ or something like that; and I won’t remember the plot contrivances by this time next week). This is a film about the detective (Louis Jouvet) — the title refers to the address of the Paris city police, somewhat in the manner of Scotland Yard in the UK — and the film tracks him as he follows leads and hunches in investigating the murder of a wealthy creep. In the course of this, the detective stalks around the theatre and its milieu, interviewing people, teasing out relationships and the underlying currents that connect people and push them apart. It’s a film of great style, and lived-in weary performances, which seems something of a trait of the Clouzot films I’ve seen. Everyone talks a whole lot, but it’s the kind of solidly unflashy film resonant in lived-in period detail that seems to characterise an older, black-and-white, era of filmmaking. As such, it would probably make a lot more sense if I were watching it in a cinema.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Clouzot and Jean Ferry (based on the book Légitime défense by Stanislas-Andre Steeman) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier | Length 106 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 January 2018

Criterion Sunday 192: Coup de Grâce (Der Fangschuß, 1976)

There’s a lot of really strong stuff in this film, set in 1919 towards the latter stages of the Russian Civil War, but it all seems so curiously distant and alienated, perhaps because it’s partly a film about the way the ravages and atrocity of war makes people curiously distant and alienated from one another. They don’t even always speak the same language to one another (sometimes French, sometimes German), as if even at a production level they couldn’t quite connect. It’s a film of passionate feelings conveyed coldly, suppressed and pushed away, and finally snuffed out. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful and glacial, and Margarethe von Trotta (usually a director in her own right, but who wrote the script with two other women adapted from a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar) is excellent in the lead role of Sophie, who almost callously demands the love of Erich (Matthia Habich), an officer, who pushes her away, leading them to get tangled up in a strange psychosexual relationship (somewhat reminding me of The Night Porter too). However, the film never enunciates anything quite so clearly as that, and a lot of these dramatic shifts in their relationship seem to happen off-screen or almost in passing. But as I said, it has that strange distancing affect to it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff | Writers Jutta Brückner, Margarethe von Trotta and Geneviève Dormann (based on the novel Le Coup de grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar) | Cinematographer Igor Luther | Starring Margarethe von Trotta, Matthias Habich | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 January 2018

Criterion Sunday 190: Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood, 1957)

The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura | Length 110 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV)

Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films]

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes

Criterion Sunday 183: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I don’t consider this typical Bresson, as it uses professional actors and it has a sort of Hollywood melodrama feel to it, although it has a dark edge of course. It’s about a woman who manipulates those around her to engineer their (social) destruction, and Maria Casarès is exactly the right person to have casted in such a role, given her admirable talents at looking mischievous. It all moves forward with admirable aplomb, and it has its lovely moments and some great high-contrast monochrome photography, admirable shadows falling across conniving faces, all that kind of thing. Its only real failing is that it’s not as great as Bresson later proved he could be as a director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Bresson | Writers Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau (based on the novel Jacques le fataliste by Denis Diderot) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Maria Casarès, Élina Labourdette, Paul Bernard | Length 84 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier in June 1999 on VHS in the Victoria University library, Wellington, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home in London on Sunday 3 December 2017)

Criterion Sunday 176: The Killers (1946/1964)

This Criterion release bundles together two adaptations of the Ernest Hemingway short story from 1927, each separated by almost twenty years and with a different generation of Hollywood direction, though it’s the first adaptation that really sticks out. After all, there’s something immensely satisfying about this key early film noir picture, and it’s not just the high-contrast shadows thrown across the screen, or the world-weary way that Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” meets his death (that’s not a spoiler by the way: that’s the set-up of the film). It’s not in the writing either (although excellent) and not just the first scenes in the diner (which are the ones taken from Hemingway’s short story) which leads into a backstory of intrigue that as it unfolds doubles-down on its double-crosses by piling them on thick and fast. No, what’s satisfying is that all of these elements come together with the excellent noir acting, all that heavy-lidded sense of fatalistic doom conveyed by Lancaster and Gardner but also all the character actors who round out the cast. Even when the plot’s events start to seem like they’re getting out of hand, the film keeps it all in check, and all the character types that seem so familiar to us now are all presented new and fresh.

Don Siegel’s remake may not perhaps be the equal of the Siodmak film (which the producer originally wanted Siegel to direct, apparently), but there’s certainly something to Don Siegel’s reimagining. Despite the film’s title and trailer, there’s not very much left of Ernest Hemingway’s original short story here except the sense in which a man fatalistically accepts his own death at the hands of the title’s killers. Thereupon these two, primarily Lee Marvin (always excellent), take it upon themselves to find out why he was killed, and uncover a ring of gangsters led by Ronald Reagan. The film’s plot takes about half the movie to kick in, and as a film, it feels quite different — less a noir than a doomed romance. It also proves that Reagan was much more convincing as a bad guy, a sad realisation to come with his last performance (maybe if he’d tried it earlier and found more acting success, we all could have been spared his political ambitions). Still, as a film this is a watchable piece of high-toned 60s murder mystery which seems to pave the way for Marvin into the greater, yet somehow stylistically reminiscent, Point Blank a few years later.

Criterion Extras: Joining these two is a film primarily known now as Andrei Tarkovsky’s first (student) film from 1956, although it was co-directed by three film students. It takes on only the events of the short story (clearly influenced visually by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation) and re-presents it, including some of the racist language that Siodmak’s work had omitted. Indeed, the scenes with the black(face) cook, even at this remove, seem pointlessly racist, but as a film this still shows some flair with its staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 October 2017
The Killers (1946) || Director Robert Siodmak | Writer Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Woody Bredell | Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien | Length 103 minutes

The Killers (1964) || Director Don Siegel | Writer Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) | Cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings | Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan | Length 95 minutes